Reason was one of the primary references of Enlightenment thinking. This relied on the belief that reason could find moral, scientific and philosophical truths which would replace dependence on traditional authority. Wollstonecraft argued that reason was universal and applied to both men and women, underlining the egalitarian ideas of the time.
Emphasis on reason encouraged discussio of its opposite: emotion. It was commonly held in Wollstonecraft's time that emotion was part of women's private world and reason belonged to the public sphere of men. She aimed her criticism at Rousseau's fictional Sophie, in Émile, who was brought up to be docile and pleasing to her husband. The author's, on the contrary, fits into the tradition of philosophers who present affections as part of the public domain. This had already been outlined by Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments where he envisions compassion as at the core of social relations.
In politics Wollstonecraft was in favour of revolutionary change, not gradual reform like Locke. She based her aspirations for a more egalitarian society on the French Revolution. So she was aghast when the French ministry of Education in 1791 set out plans in which boys would be educated in humanities, social and natural sciences, while girls got tuition in sewing and home economics. The following year she penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a response.
The author's religious beliefs could be summarised as allowing everyone to pursue the divine gift of virtue by using reason. However, she went further, arguing that souls were all equal before God and so deserved equal education in order not to depend on others.
Wollstonecraft opens A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by criticising the French education minister's pamphlet arguing for equal education rights, yet dividing them by gender. She claims this is placing men in a tyrannical position.
The Introduction looks at the reasons why society doesn't treat men and women as equals. She comes to the conclusion that it is because men, and most women, think that the two are different beings and that "the weaker vessel" is the woman.
Chapter 1 examines hierarchies and tyrannical power. She blames the blind submission of the majority to the powerful, which derives in inequalities.
Chapter 2 argues that women are their own enemies since they are blindly obedient and eternilise their own oppression.
Chapter 3 contends that the idea of women as weaker than men is misconceived.
Chapter 4 blames women's enforced sedentarism for their physical inferiority and low social expectations are the cause of their mental frailty.
Chapter 5 analyses her contemporaries' opinions. She criticises Rousseau's suggestion that women's purpose is "to please the man". She also denounces the concept that women must follow rules of decorum. This, she insists, only teaches them to obey, not to be able to decide between right and wrong.
Chapters 6, 7, and 8 consider the supposed feminine ideals of modesty, chastity and virtue. She counters that real modesty can only be achieved by attaining an intelligent mind. She also suggests that as marriage is the only way up for women they become most interested in attracting men, instead of other projects.
Chapters 9, 10, and 11 examine parents' tyrannical approach to women by insisting on obedience. This sets girls up for compliance and while they are not given a complete education they will not be fit for domestic duties through pursuing vain aims or becoming themselves despotic parents.
Chapter 12 ends her argument by offering a solution to all social problems: free, equal education for boys and girls. This would allow women to become independent and change gender relationships from subordination to companionship.
In Chapter 13 the author's lists the main faults in women which could be solved by giving them a correct education.
Education and Virtue
Wollstonecraft explains that there is no natural weakness in women but rather that the education system is inadequate for girls:
“The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.”
She affirms that women only learn to care about finding a husband, so they are not respected for anything else. They stagnate intellectually and morally.
Education should prepare children not only for life, but for eternity. Training for virtue implies having the opportunity to confront adversities personally. If girls are sheltered from these challenges by making the pleasure of others the main goal of life, they cannot develop properly. Virtue as a question of gender is ridiculous, in the opinion of the author's:
“[T]ill women are led to exercise their understandings, they should not be satirized for their attachment to rakes [womanizing men]…when it appears to be the inevitable consequence of their education.”
Gender and Marriage
Wollstonecraft claims that society encourages women to use their supposed weakness as a way to attract men. This serves women poorly since it reinforces the cliché. She also affirms that this puts romantic relationships over those of mutual respect. If you are sheltered as a girl you will become an ineffectual woman.
The author's also asserts that if girls learn to worry about their physical beauty from an early age they will grow up concerning themselves with frivolities as adults:
"Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
When educated in this way it is understandable that many women marry immoral men since they have learned not to judge internal virtues, but a 'bravery marries beauty' narrative. It also leaves widows at a big disadvantage.
Wollstonecraft proposes that to avoid disastrous marriages women should be taught to be their husbands' companions, not only their lovers.
Responding to criticism that she wanted to overturn society, Wollstonecraft responded that society should allow this to be tested. This should be no risk to anyone. If equal gender relationships improve, healthier marriage relationships and families will be the result.
Liberalism distinguishes between public and private spheres and the State guarantees rights but leaves families to choose. This means that the male heads of households, who were normally the property owners, were those who decided.
The family economy is self-regulatory so the liberal approach to change is persuasion, not State legislation or moral imposition. Wollstonecraft did not oppose the idea of women in charge of the home, but she proposed more financial independence for them. She criticised the rich harshly, though she did not disagree with private property.
Although some scholars have identified socialist or radical elements within Wollstonecraft's work, she was clearly working in the tradition of liberalism. Liberalism rests on a distinction between the public and private spheres, maintaining that the state guarantees rights and leaves families to make their own choices. In her time, this meant that liberalism tended to favour male household heads, who were the usual property owners. Since the family and the household economy are private and self-regulating, the classical liberal's path to social change is persuasion, not the imposition of new morals and social structures by the state. Wollstonecraft did not challenge the idea that women were primarily supposed to be in the home, although she did advocate for more financial independence. She also heavily criticised the rich, but she did not go so far as to say that property was undesirable.
Rationality was the cultural catchword of Wollstonecraft's era, which believed that reason was basic to human emergence from a state of Nature. The author's insisted that women should focus less on their emotions and more on their faculties of reasoning. She emphasised this since she believed that to acquire full citizenship women must develop their rational thinking. Reason would encourage women to understand their real duties, leaving behind outward appearances. Wollstonecraft believes that there us nothing natural in women not exercising reason. She adds that in order to be effective parents they need to develop their rationality.